Distant Dreams: Understanding the aspirations of Afghan returnees

Millions of refugees and migrants have returned to Afghanistan since 2012. Most come from neighbouring countries, driven out by protection concerns, fears of deportation, economic difficulty and integration challenges. In the European Union (EU), asylum recognition rates for Afghans are falling; in Turkey and the Western Balkans, expanded immigration enforcement and harsh conditions drive movements both onwards to the EU and back home.

Afghans return to a context characterised by conflict, violence, drought and economic hardship. While some initial reintegration experiences may be positive – particularly reunions with family members, there is ample evidence of widespread economic, social and psychosocial needs. National and international responses often lack resources and insight to adequately address these concerns. Some do not target returnees and others only target certain categories of returnees.  

In October 2018, the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) Asia commissioned Seefar to address gaps in the evidence base on return and reintegration in Afghanistan. The resulting study – Distant Dreams: Understanding the aspirations of Afghan returnees – aimed to:

  • Understand the varied intentions and aspirations of returned Afghan refugees and migrants;
  • Determine how challenges experienced during the migration, return and reintegration processes influence future plans (including interest in re-migration);
  • Assess how humanitarian and development actors can better respond to support the needs of returnees and those embarking on re-migration journeys.

Seefar conducted a desk review followed by 56 in-person qualitative interviews with returnees in Kabul and Nangarhar in October and November 2018 to achieve these objectives.

Key findings:

  • Reintegration is a process defined by poor psychosocial well-being. Returnees share many humanitarian and development needs with other Afghans but approach these challenges in a fundamentally different manner. Traumatic experiences during migration and return can lead to depression, anxiety, sadness, isolation and even suicidal ideation in Afghanistan. These psychosocial challenges leave many returnees highly vulnerable and less self-sufficient than many other Afghans. Female returnees appeared particularly affected.
  • Perceived progress towards the realisation of future goals was highly dependent on psychosocial well-being. Most returnees had the impression they were making no progress. While returnees confront similar challenges, those who looked at ‘intractable’ barriers with a sense of individual agency were better equipped to take action in the pursuit of personal goals.
  • Re-migration was not the preferred long-term plan for most returnees but was a fall-back for many. Returnees held diverse and multiple future plans. They were willing to change plans in response to circumstances. Interest in re-migration was linked to poor psychosocial conditions after return, involuntary return and country from which he or she returned.
  • Family support helped returnees to feel better over time and its absence amplified reintegration challenges. Returnees pointed to family as key facilitators of recovery and improved relationships with their communities of return. This suggests that qualitative measures of a returnee’s relationship to family and community may be better at identifying vulnerability and humanitarian needs than economic indicators.
  • Major information gaps exist throughout reintegration experiences. Some returnees based their return decision on flawed or incomplete information and later regretted doing so. Most returnees received conflicting information on available assistance during and after return. Many were unable to access aid. Returnees often felt that ‘no one helped’ them – even if they had actually received assistance.
  • Existing research on return and reintegration is skewed towards return. The diversity of reintegration experiences and long-term aspirations has not been adequately explored; neither has the link between initial migration motivators and future plans (such as re-migration). Returnee voices, and especially those of women and girls, are largely absent.
  • Categorical approaches to return assistance do not align with returnee experiences. Most humanitarian and development programmes categorise returnees with binary labels (i.e. “voluntary”, “assisted”, “documented”). However, approaches using a categorical approach can mismatch resources with needs. This suggests that funding and assistance should follow a need-based approach.

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